Mom and I are standing inside the Grand Forks airport terminal. It’s pretty quiet inside. All the other arriving passengers have left. There’s a faint hum of conversation in the tiny bar nearby. We’re watching for Mary Beth’s grey suburban to pull up so we can head up to Grandma’s house. We are going to Cavalier, a small town of less than 2,000. It’s around 100 miles north near the Canadian border. Mary Beth is mom’s cousin.
I’m 32 now and I know this will be my last trip to Grandma’s house. Ever since they closed the drugstore and sold the building, Grandma’s health has declined. She had thrived in that store. She loved the hustle and bustle of managing the non pharmacy side. She loved the people stopping by for coffee and gossip in the back room. Now it is gone.
Mary Beth pulls up and mom and I drag our suitcases outside. We pile them in the back and climb into the SUV.
Mary Beth catches us up on all things Cavalier. Well not really things but how are her kids, how’s the farm doing, where’s her mom Esther, and so on. She throws in the latest scandals, divorces, and extramarital trysts. We’re ooo-ing, ah-ing. Our eyes grow big when she tells us that a family friend is divorcing his current wife to go back to his first wife because he got her pregnant. Randy is not just a name in his case! It makes our trip go by quickly especially when we giggle over the antics of friends and family.
I sit up straight. That excited butterfly feeling starts in my stomach. Mary Beth slows down as we approach a familiar landmark. She puts on her left blinker to make the turn onto Division Street. It’s funny but to this day whenever I hear the staccato clack of a car’s blinker I think of that moment as we pass the lumberyard located at the bend in the road.
Grandma’s house is close. I have to see everything. What’s new. What’s changed.
That’s the street to the pool and the Korn Krib. How many times did I order pink and blue cotton candy at the Korn Krib after a fun filled time swimming in the city pool? I can still hear the screams and water splashing as kids big and small enjoy the pool on a hot summer afternoon. I remember standing, shivering, wrapped in a damp beach towel at the Korn Krib. The popcorn furiously beating against the metal lid. The aroma strong and mouthwatering. Hmmm nope. A cherry popsicle would do the trick. I love all things cherry, The sweet taste of cherry would accompany me on my walk to the store. Besides I could show everyone at the store my bright red tongue.
There’s the Dairy Queen. I laugh at the memory of the time Grandma gave me the treat money for my cousins, brother, and me. But I refused to take the shortcut across a rickety footbridge that crossed the Tongue River. The boys, my brother John and cousin Brad, always ran ahead and jumped up and down grabbing ahold of each side and rocking the bridge back and forth. The swaying bridge scared me. I’d look down at the flowing river and wonder what would happen if I did fall into the cold water. No doubt float away but I had no idea where the Tongue River actually flowed. For all I knew it could be China! I started to cry, stamped my foot, called them mean, and left. I took the long way to the DQ. When I yanked open the door to the DQ I knew the grill was working overtime. I sniffed. Burgers for sure. I sniffed again. Grease—French fries and onion rings. Then I looked to the people waiting around. There they were. Those mean boys glared at me. I could tell I did not have a happy brother nor happy cousins.
Oh there’s the bakery. Wonder what the chances are they have veneterta. Just a sliver of the decadent Icelandic layered concoction of sugar cookie and prunes would be wonderful.
There’s the Methodist church also known as the chocolate church because of its brown color. It really is a nice milk chocolate-y brown. It’s the church where I attended my first funeral. I was seven when my great grandmother passed. We lived in Cavalier at the time. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Tupa, let me leave class to go to the funeral. I felt both grown up yet such a child. My great grandmother—we called her Dobby—had always been one of my favorite people at Grandma’s house. I loved her so. She was bedridden, but I have no idea why. I would always spend time with her in her room playing button-button-who’s-got-the-button. She had a cocoa tin with old buttons mostly one of a kind and no doubt snipped from garments that had seen better days. I loved playing with the buttons. Some plastic, some wood, some made with who knows what exotic substance. I still have that tin filled with the buttons.
I felt grown up because I walked myself to the church. But once I entered the building I only saw tall people dressed in dark clothing, some weeping. The sad organ music played inside the church. Family members crowded together. We were put in some order so we could all file into the church to be seated in the front rows. This was one time when I felt I had to act grown up. No playing with toys. No fidgeting. I sat quietly listening to people speak. Some read from the bible. Some told of their memories of Dobby. I finally realized she would no longer be in that little room off the kitchen. Who would I play button-button-who’s-got-the-button with?
There’s the school where I attended part of the second grade and my freshman year of high school. Yes, the school that didn’t teach me how to write in cursive.
There’s the Mayo house. I spent many summer afternoons in their house watching Dark Shadows and Star Trek back to back drinking syrupy sweet Kool Aid and munching on salty crisp potato chips. I must have been crazy at six years of age. Two things I cannot stand as an adult are vampires and men with pointy ears wearing solid color velour shirts.
And finally we reach the house at the end of the street. Grandma’s house. A modest four bedroom, one and a half bath set on a beautiful lot. Large front yard of dewy green grass that you love to walk in your bare feet especially after the rain. The far end is a jumble of trees and bushes hiding the Tongue River which snakes its way behind and beside the house. I chuckle as I remember that when I was but a youngster my cousins, brother, and I had no idea how to pronounce the river’s name. But one day Brad called it the tawn-goo and it stuck. Even to this day we still call it the tawn-goo river.
The backyard is splendor in the grass. Three level tiers with a gentle slope between each of them. The first level is more lush grass, a clothesline, and a huge lilac bush. The clothesline has been there for decades. If I close my eyes I can see the clean towels and sheets gently billowing in a breeze. Who doesn’t love the smell of laundry dried outside. Of course I remember the times the thunder rumbled alerting us that rain was near. It necessitated a dash outside to save the laundry.
There’s the lilac bush beside the clothesline where we took pictures after my first communion. I wore a white dress, white shoes, white knee-highs, white veil, and the blue striped poncho that grandma knit for me. To this day whenever I smell a lilac’s perfume I remember those photos especially the one with Grandpa’s arm around my shoulders.
The second tier was always the garden tier. Divided in two sections. The left section grew roses. So beautifully returning year after year. I remember the red roses that always graced the kitchen table cut short and tucked into the antique silver frog. Their perfume so heady and strong you just had to bury your nose in the silky petals and inhale deep. The right side grew fruits and veggies. There were always the staples like tomatoes, green peppers, carrots, beans, zucchini. Beside the veggie bed was a mature crab apple tree. So many small crab apples every year. Never to eat but we always made jelly. Always. Our goal to can as many jars of clear and pale gold jelly as possible. Can’t you just taste the apple jelly slathered on sourdough toast?
The third tier was the fun tier. The sandbox, the swing set, the playhouse. The playhouse housed an old twin bed and a cast off chair or two. In later years the playhouse became used more and more for storage. The sandbox contained more grass than sand now but I remember many days packing the pale grainy sand into buckets and moving it from corner to corner. Rust covered the swing set. Useless now but once a vehicle to the treetops.
If you walked to the trees lining the back of the property and looked down you’d see the ole tawn-goo gently flowing below. I still wonder where it goes. But somehow I doubt China.